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There is "a demographic timebomb" ticking at the heart of publicly-funded community legal services, warned Nony Ardill, chair of the Access to Justice Alliance (AJA), at its first public meeting at London's City University, which was organised by this new coalition of community groups and lawyers.
Young lawyers are not going into legal aid, warned Ardill, who is also policy director at the Legal Action Group. "This demonstrates the Government's reluctance to plan for the future," he said. "Despite its commitment to sustainable communities, it has no understanding of the role of legal and advice services."
The AJA includes: Advice UK, the Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice, the Justice Law Centres Federation, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and the Legal Action Group.
The AJA is calling on the Government to "restate its commitment to legal aid". "The Community Legal ServiceÃ¢Â€Â¦ was supposed to improve legal aid for civil and family cases," it argued. "But legal aid is now in a state of crisis. Only the poorest people qualify for public funding and further cuts are planned. It's getting harder by the day to find lawyers and advisers willing to take on legal aid cases."
The AJA said that five years after the Community Legal Service was set up under the Access to Justice Act 1999, it was "not living up to its ambitious promise". In particular, the AJA is calling on ministers to ensure that local authorities contribute properly to the appropriate funding of independent advice in their area, scrap the financial eligibility rules for civil legal aid and protect the civil legal aid budget from rising expenditure on criminal work.
Legal aid and access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable was the "one part of the welfare state that's not championed by politicians", said Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty. According to the AJA, spending on legal aid represents only "a tiny fraction" (0.45 per cent) of total public spending. Chakrabarti said it was "a scandal" that the three main parties were "deliberately decimating a vital public service".
"The irony is that, as there's more and more law, there are less public service lawyers," Chakrabarti continued. "The Government promised an attack on social exclusion and domestic violence, but there are advice deserts where there are no skilled people available."
Teresa Perchard, policy director at Citizens Advice, reported that 39 per cent of Citizens Advice Bureaux throughout the country were in these deserts with no access to publicly-funded legal advice. She reported that in Cumbria one client needed legal advice in a custody case with a hearing in three days, but was unable to find help after telephoning five specialists. Another client needed housing advice and could not get it because two suppliers in the county had used up their allocation of case starts. "Access to justice is absolutely vital to help people understand their rights and responsibilities," she said. "Our communities fall apart without access to justice."